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It’s sometimes easy to forget that ‘heavy metal’ as we know it today is quickly coming to the end of its half-century of existence. That’s almost 50 goddamn years, folks.
If the iconic, heavy riff was fortunate enough to have birthdays, it’d likely be a stubborn, old bloke by now. As part of this established legacy, the back catalogues of prolific groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple act as a form of Rosetta Stone for each new band that germinates along the way, helping to transcribe the secret language of horns, headbanging and unconscious air-guitar. Hell, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler’s use of the ‘Devil’s tritone’ and manipulation of the ‘diabolus in musica’ interval in ‘Black Sabbath’ is essentially the metal equivalent of primitive hunter-gatherers learning how to make fire. ‘Hail Satan’ indeed.
And even now, slightly younger acts like Funeral, My Dying Bride and Candlemass are pushing through multiple decades of riff mileage, continuing to add to the already vast and indomitable pantheon of heavy metal.
Against these formidable titans of progressive rock, metal and doom, one will find dirge merchants Pallbearer are still very much in the throes of their musical infancy. Bursting onto the scene with their powerful debut, 2012’s ‘Sorrow of Extinction,’ and its critically well-received follow-up, 2014’s ‘Foundations of Burden,’ the Little Rock, Arkansas quartet— comprising of vocalist/guitarist Brett Campbell, co-lyricist/bassist Joseph D. Rowland, guitarist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly — have quickly risen through the ranks of underground metal to become the new media darlings of an ‘old-school’ revival. After last year’s while-you-wait EP ‘Fear and Fury’ featured a singular new track and two takes on eccentric Black Sabbath and Type O Negative covers, music journalists across the Internet began to get wind of the band’s imminent third album ‘Heartless,’ and fired up the rumour mill to push Pallbearer on a course for the mainstream.
In a January interview with Rolling Stone, ‘Heartless’ was described as “even more radio-ready” with “hooks that seem sharper and choruses that demand more attention.” So, with ‘Heartless’ ready for public release and not having left this reviewer’s playlist for many weeks, what’s the verdict? Have Pallbearer sold-out, thereby diluting their intrinsic heaviness and streamlining their creativity for a better approach at perceived airwave domination? Nope! Not in the slightest.
Self-produced by the band in a hometown studio and engineered by Jason Weinheimer, ‘Heartless’ is by far Pallbearer’s most adventurous, complex and daring record yet. From a pure production standpoint, the band has never sounded as raw, as organic and as unfathomably expansive as they do right here. Mixing from Joe Barresi (Melvins, Tool, Soundgarden) and mastering from Dave Collins (Alice Cooper, Chicago, Metallica) ensures that Pallbearer’s dynamic range is never buried beneath the many layers of sprawling guitars, quaking bottom-end and luscious, three-part vocal harmonies.
In short, it’s a beautiful fucking record and one that Pallbearer have been gradually building up to throughout their nine-year career.
The soaring lead riff of ‘I Saw The End’ opens ‘Heartless,’ flying over droning chugs before becoming firmly meshed amongst duelling, harmonised guitars. Campbell delivers an impassioned vocal performance and successfully channels a young Ozzy Osbourne, reaching a shimmering and emphatic “Oh yeah!” moment in the track’s midsection. Approaching the four-minute mark, a prog-driven bridge transition is bolstered by Rowland’s thrumming, rock-solid tone, impressive vocal layering and the subtle twinkle of background synthesisers, as the band ascends a towering crescendo before summiting the mountainous peak hinted at on the album artwork and piercing the heavens above.
While it can be somewhat of a cliché in music journalism, ‘Heartless’ adheres to the tried-and-true example of a band delivering both their most melodic and heaviest material to date. This need for experimentation has inevitability pulled Pallbearer’s songwriting into polar extremes, which are easily visible in terms of track length. Shorter cuts like ‘Cruel Road’ and ‘Thorns’ feature thick, murky guitar passages and driving, chug patterns that propel the band along at a swift tempo. ‘Thorns’ (their second shortest track ever, edged out by the predominantly instrumental ‘Ashes’ from ‘Foundations…’) benefits from a brief acoustic segue in the middle and harmonised leads that touch and caress one another, whereas ‘Cruel Road’ delivers punch after aggressive punch, with a bludgeoning sludge outro that feels less like copping a brick to the forehead, and more like calmly lying down in front of a barreling steamroller.
Standout ‘Lie Of Survival’ pushes itself just over the eight-minute mark (hardly a ‘short’ track, yes, but still conservative by Pallbearer standards) with a slow-burn prologue that hangs on a simmering blues riff, before being swallowed up by dark foreboding keys and a morbidly melodic refrain. Campbell, Rowland and Holt strike a balance here between delicate guitar interplay and sorrowful vocal harmonies, which bleed into a desolate outro of isolated guitars and Rowland’s haunting, ephemeral lyrics: “Last burning breath filled with death and desire/Our boundless pride becomes a funeral pyre/The end remains the only god we can’t deny/And still believing the lie of survival.” As if grappling with these existential wanderings, there’s a maelstrom of emotions that surface on the album’s title track: rapid-fire pick accents, glorious solos, lumbering passages reminiscent of Russian Circles, jazz interludes, reverb-soaked vocals and transcendental harmonies. It’s the type of multi-faceted mastery you’d expect from legends like Pink Floyd, and in the youthful hands of Pallbearer, it’s simply spectacular!
However, in long form is where the real magic happens and the 12-minute epic ‘Dancing In Madness’ is no exception. The track broods with soft, minimalistic drumming and a post-rock ambience in its early moments, before spilling into an ethereal chasm that’s punctuated by shouted vocals and Lierly’s bursts of double kick mayhem. Stalling any hope of recovery, the track quickly shifts gears into a full-blown psychedelic mode with dazzling solos and progressive transitions. While closer ‘A Plea for Understanding’ is an absolute behemoth, and one of the Pallbearer’s longest compositions to date.
As the press material accompanying ‘Heartless’ articulates, it’s the track where “the entire group puts forth the full realisation of their vision: More than a doom band.” And in this, they succeed fantastically, with a sparse and gentle epic that builds with careful restraint and bursts of raw emotion, as Campbell pushes his vocal range to its mesmerising, elegiac limit. It’s a stunning performance from the four-piece that’s neatly encapsulated by a single, defining premise: “Here I am again, in that familiar place/Dreams may try to grow in the dark/But no fire can burn without the setting of a spark.”
When Killyourstereo.com asked Campbell about the possibility of Pallbearer’s breakthrough into the mainstream rock consciousness in a recent interview, he said: “If we do, it’s going to have to be on our own terms. If through some incredibly bizarre twist of fate, what we’re making propels us into the mainstream, then that’s sweet… I think we make good music, and I hope that people connect with it. Whether or not there’s going to be 12-minute songs on the radio… personally, I’m not holding my breath.”
And it’s this sentiment of digesting ‘Heartless’ on its own merits – free of hype and wishful thinking – which has real value. It’s a record with both the compositional complexity and monolithic heaviness to appeal to long-time supporters of the band, while also embracing a diverse range of progressive and alternative influences, that may open doors to casual hard rock and traditional metal fans. More importantly, there isn’t a shred of redundancy to be found on Pallbearer’s third album: no superfluous instrumentals, zero time wasted, and each note is delivered with absolute care and precision. With only seven tracks constituting a full hour’s worth of sonic exploration, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more invigorating and powerful way to kill 60 minutes this year, than diving headfirst into ‘Heartless’.
- I Saw The End
- Lie Of Survival
- Dancing In Madness
- Cruel Road
- A Plea for Understanding
‘Heartless’ is out March 24th through Profound Lore/Nuclear Blast, and you can purchase the record here. To listen to Pallbearer’s fantastic cover of Type O Negative’s ‘Love You To Death’ from last year’s ‘Fear and Fury’ EP, click here.